‘Woodchucks’ by Maxine Kumin is a metaphorical poem about humanity and the lack thereof. The poem displays the gradual increase in a farmer’s thrill as they hunt down woodchucks, and rodent pests, on their farm. Figuratively, however, the poem is a conceit representing the way humans, especially those in authority, gradually lose their humanity courtesy of power.
‘Woodchucks’ by Maxine Kumin is a cautionary poem about the damaging effect of power and authority on one’s humanity.
‘Woodchucks’ conveys this warning using an extended metaphor of a farmer killing pests called woodchucks on their farm. The farmer’s initial intent is mercy killing; they use the technique called “gassing” and a “knockout bomb,” hoping that the pests’ death is quick. However, it soon becomes known that the number of these pests is larger than expected. This irritates the persona, and soon enough, they drop the idea of mercy killing.
The farmer uses guns, and the thrill of killing these pests rises. They admit losing their “pacifist” nature and make excuses for their violent killings using “Darwinian” principles. In the end, this farmer transitions from justifying their killings to blaming the pests for not dying in silence. At this point, the farmer fully embraces their murderous nature and even begins to dream excitedly of murdering these woodchucks.
In a figurative sense, this entire poem represents the way humans, especially humans in authority, slowly lose their empathy for their subjects to the corruption power brings.
‘Woodchucks’ by Maxine Kumin is a five stanza poem; each stanza is a sestet: a stanza of six lines. The poem is traditional because it has a fixed though unconventional rhyme scheme, ABCACB. It is non-traditional because it does not have a fixed meter or number of syllables per line. That said, one may consider ‘Woodchucks’ a rhymed free verse. The line with the highest number of syllables in the poem does not exceed fourteen.
Despite lacking a fixed meter, the poem still spots a noticeable rhythm due to its pacing. At the beginning, the persona is relatively calm, and so the pacing is slow. However, as the persona’s murderous tendencies grow, the pacing—and, by extension, rhythm—of the poem speeds up.
‘Woodchucks,’ like many poems, employs enjambment to render the speaker’s thoughts. This results in sentences that spill over several lines, although Kumin uses punctuations appropriately to indicate a pause or end to thought.
- Conceit: this is another name for conceit is an extended metaphor. The entire poem is an extended metaphor for the gradual loss of a person’s humanity. At first glance, there is no obvious similarity between a farmer hunting rodents and the poem’s overarching theme: the effect of power. However, this connection becomes more and more obvious as one reads ‘Woodchucks.’
- Allusion: Social Darwinism and the Holocaust are the most obvious allusions in the poem. As soon as the farmer embraces their murderous tendencies, social Darwinism is the first excuse they give for their violence. In essence, the belief is that only they should “survive” on the farm, not only as the strongest being present but as the farm’s owner. This effectively ties in with a reference to the Holocaust (stanza five), which coincidentally used the concept of eugenics, a by-product of social Darwinism, to justify its oppression of people. The mention of “Feed and Grain Exchange” in stanza one also alludes to an organization (probably defunct now) that supported farmers.
- Anthropomorphism: Throughout the poem, the woodchucks are animals given human qualities. This device predominantly appears from stanza two onwards. The imagery of rodent pests “beheading the carrots” and “flipflopp(ing) in the air” makes them seem human. The interaction between the farmer and these pests, their view of the rodents as almost “worthy” opponents especially, strengthens this assumption.
- Caesura: Caesura appears at several points in ‘Woodchucks.’ At these points, Kumin introduces a pause within a line using commas.
- Alliteration: Alliteration notably appears in stanza two, line three, with the repetition of the “s” sound, stanza three, line one (with the “f” sound repeating); and stanza three, line six, with the repetition of the “d” sound.
Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.
but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range.
The opening stanza of ‘Woodchucks’ is a premonition of the entire poem. It first gives readers insight into the power balance between the farmer and the pests and, by extension, between rulers and the ruled. Line 4 demonstrates clearly that the farmer (the ruler) is the being in charge seeing as they are easily able to restrict the rodents’ movement. By extension, this shows a ruler’s capacity to limit the ruled’s rights while they hide in a “sub-sub-basement,” out of their ruler’s reach.
This stanza already mentions mercy killing which, figuratively, represents the cold comfort rulers in history often offered their subjects in similar situations. The speaker’s innocent tone and even their ability to solicit humor with the word “sub-sub-basement” show that they genuinely wished there was some other way to handle the pests besides killing them. This represents how many new rulers begin when initiated into their offices. They almost seem “forced” to make cruel decisions until they start making them with ease.
Next morning they turned up again, no worse
nipping the broccoli shoots, beheading the carrots.
This stanza reveals the reaction of the ruled to authority, as proven throughout history. These pests are not easily contained or controlled like a ruler’s subjects. This is where the device anthropomorphism fits. After all, like these pests, humans are independently thinking creatures that are not easily controlled, whether or not their rights are restricted.
The strong verbs and phrasal verbs the speaker uses from line 3 onwards reveal their growing paranoia and frustrations with these pests. This is akin to the frustration of a new ruler who fears not being able to handle their regime. Considering Kumin’s Jewish background, one can recall the rhetoric of the Nazis back then that the Jews were a dangerous and imperfect race. More likely, this rhetoric had something to do with fear.
The food from our mouths, I said, righteously thrilling
He died down in the everbearing roses.
Stanza three reveals the reaction of the farmer and by extension, the reaction of a paranoid ruler. If ‘Woodchucks’ were prose, this would be the climax of the poem. At this point, readers sense a change in the speaker’s tone and mood. Between lines 1-4, the farmer lets go of the remorse felt at the beginning of the poem. In these lines, the farmer instead justifies the acts of violence that follow their frustrations. Line 4 refers to social Darwinism, the theory of “survival of the fittest.” Going by Kumin’s background, this again points to the rhetoric of the Nazis. The Nazis based their reasons to wipe out the Jews on the concept of eugenics, a by-product of social Darwinism. The farmer uses this theory to justify their current lack of remorse for these pests.
By extension, again, the farmer’s self-justification parallels the manner in which rulers throughout history have justified genocides and several other violent acts against humanity when the ruled did not fall in line. The phrase “righteously thrilling” perfectly captures the ruler’s need to excuse their clearly violent acts when in fact they were not only an expression of their frustration but also something that thrilled them.
The farmer’s proclamation in line three reveals that, in fact, they are well aware of their violent actions, and their justifications are only a form of self-deceit.
Ten minutes later I dropped the mother. She
the hawkeye killer came on stage forthwith.
One would notice the increasing pace in this stanza. Most of the words used here comprise fewer syllables than in previous stanzas. This is due to the farmer’s breathy but sickening excitement. At this stage, the farmer no longer hides behind justifications for their actions but embraces what they are: a “murderer.”
This is Kumin indirectly detailing how the Holocaust progressed, from biased rhetoric and self-justifications by rulers to outright genocide—and the pride in it. By extension, this represents the fate of every ruler corrupted by power. Considering the figurative meaning of ‘Woodchucks,’ this stanza soaks the atmosphere of the entire poem in anxiety. It is, after all, a stanza with strong visual imagery detailing the deaths of women and children.
There’s one chuck left. Old wily fellow, he keeps
gassed underground the quiet Nazi way.
‘Woodchucks’ ends with no redemption for the farmer and, by extension, rulers. If anything, the closing stanza details the speaker reaching an unrecoverable state: a stalking murderer who enjoys the hunt. The stanza also shows the speaker stooping to victim-blaming. Again, this is not uncommon among rulers like the farmer throughout history.
Their victim-blaming is not a sign of the speaker’s long-lost remorse but rather another form of self-justification they no longer need. Line 6 confirms the inspiration for Kumin’s poem and draws the first clear comparison between the events on the farm and her cautionary tale of power: Jews, just like the woodchucks at the poem’s beginning, were gassed in the Nazi war.
‘Woodchucks’ ends on a disturbing but introspective note. It reminds readers how susceptible one is to corruption and invites one, especially one in a position of power, to wonder whether they have already begun to “fall from grace” like the farmer.
‘Woodchucks’ by Maxine Kumin was first published in 1972 in the poetry collection, Up Country: Poems of New England, New and Selected. This poetry collection went on to win Kumin the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. ‘Woodchucks’ was later republished in the 1982 collection Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief.
The poem conveys a warning to many seated in positions of authority. By portraying the gradual descent of the farmer into a murderous stupor, the poem reminds readers of the way power or simply being the stronger human has led to many self-justified crimes against humanity throughout history. It, therefore, indirectly warns those in positions of power to be wary lest history repeats itself through them.
Kumin’s background, being born to Jewish parents who lived through the Nazi war and the era of eugenics, definitely inspired the themes in ‘Woodchucks.’ However, her farm in New Hampshire is said to be the inspiration, not only for the literal representation of ‘Woodchucks’ but also for her other poems in Up Country: Poems of New England, New and Selected.
In a persona poem, the poet creates an entirely new persona outside of themselves. In this sense, ‘Woodchucks’ is a persona poem seeing as the voice in the poem is not Kumin herself but a farmer, a character she created.
The mood, overall, is one of anxiety. Courtesy of the speaker’s rising fury and morbid excitement at the prospect of killing these pests, readers are bound to feel anxious as the poem progresses. At first, the speaker’s tone is innocently objective, however, it quickly becomes sickeningly thrilled from the second stanza onwards.
If you enjoyed reading ‘Woodchucks’ by Maxine Kumin, you should check out similar poems:
- ‘Power‘ by Audre Lorde – a poem based on the murder of an African American boy named Clifford Glover by a racist police officer.
- ‘London‘ by Samuel Johnson – a poem exposing the corrupt and hypocritical culture in 18th-century London.
- ‘Human Family‘ by Maya Angelou – a poem telling about unity and how interconnected humans are.